ALBANY, N.Y. – When people hear the word “homeless shelter,” it’s easy to imagine a sterile building with long, narrow hallways and rooms filled with creaky, metal beds.
But as Kathy Dunlap, a resident and assistant house manager for the Guardian House, gave a tour of this New York shelter, the large home offered a different feel.
The rooms held beds with colorful linen, pictures along the walls and personal belongings on top of spacious dressers. The wooden steps climbing up the main stairwell are still held in place today by the square nails hammered down 200-plus years ago. The hardwood floors dip in places and groan beneath the weight of feet walking the hallways. One woman prepped a large, seasoned chicken inside a crock-pot sitting on the kitchen counter. Other women scurried between rooms and main-floor offices as they anticipated a visit from a group of honored guests.
This is the Saratoga County Rural Preservation Company, better known as the Guardian House: a place where military veteran women find rescue from homelessness.
“I love the idea of working with veterans … (They’re) people who went in and gave time and service to our country. There shouldn’t be homeless veterans at all. Ever,” said Mary Laskey, the finance director for Guardian House, which is located in Ballston Spa, N.Y.
The home houses up to 11 women veterans at a time. They come from various military backgrounds, and the stories that forced them into homelessness range from sexual assault trauma, to substance abuse to deep depression. The center helps them with all kinds of services, whether to bring them to the Veterans Affairs hospital for medical care, find an apartment, apply for a job or complete higher education; the goal is to eventually help these women rely on their own strengths.
“We sort of get them back on their feet – get them healthy – and get them viable living (solutions) in a nice place, and make sure they have a support network in place when they leave,” said Laskey.
This is only one of two homes in the state of New York that focuses specifically on women veterans. They’ve partnered with organizations that teach nursing, carpentry and mechanics to give the house residents tangible skills they can use once they move on. They’ve even worked with a group that taught an eight-week course in black-and-white film photography. At the end of the course, the women displayed their work at a local historical museum that brought in a huge crowd, said Laskey.
“It’s no longer a matter of sending care packages to deployed Soldiers … but provide support to family members and those who are coming back (from war), which is the modern way of sending the care packages,” said Maj. Gen. Peter Lennon, commander of the 377th Theater Sustainment Command, about the importance of these services.
Lennon toured the house along with New York state political members. Lennon was born and raised just an hour-and-a-half west of the Guardian House, outside of Cooperstown, N.Y. His command sergeant major still owns a house less than eight miles from this place, where his wife and children live while he resides in New Orleans for his Army position.
“I was very interested in how the local community (members) were embracing the veterans who were unemployed, who were needing to get on their feet. This is one of a kind,” said Command Sgt. Maj. Nagee Lunde, command sergeant major of the 377th TSC.
Right now, Guardian House is competing with nine other veteran organizations around the country to win a top-three grand prize that will be awarded at the end of May. The grand prizes range from $100,000 to $250,000, funded by The Home Depot as part of their Aprons in Action campaign to assist military veteran communities.
Already the Guardian House received $25,000 from Home Depot as part of this campaign. If they win any of the grand prizes, the money will go toward rebuilding a garage that is currently falling apart and a new thrift store that can help employ women residents and generate revenue for the house. The garage will hold a fitness room and a media center where women can take online courses.
In order to win, they need fans, friends and service members to cast daily votes on www.vethelpny.org.
“I think it’s a noble cause,” said Lunde. “It’s a very dynamic program. (It’s) a model of how local communities can embrace, support and invest in veterans.”
As Dunlap gave the house tour, she moved with purpose and shared historic knowledge of the place. She resembles a completely different woman than how she described herself just two years prior.
“I was literally turning around in circles because I didn’t’ know which way to turn inside the apartment, because I didn’t know what to do next. I was so flustered and upset, (that I couldn’t) take charge,” she said.
Dunlap, who suffered from deep depression and anxiety that stems back to her childhood, served in the Navy from 1980 to 1986. Her depression eventually caused her to lose a job she had held for 14 years. She moved from one temporary job to another until eventually she had no choice but to move in with her daughter. That lasted three years, when she realized she needed help.
“I felt like best I could do would be just hanging on, eking out living. Now I can see myself as a success,” said Dunlap.
This place has given her the strength she needed to become self-reliant, she said.
In June, she will graduate from residency and live on her own for the first time in 21 months. She has a stable job, an apartment and a sense of responsibility she can look forward to.
“It reinforced that I can do it, and of course each success makes you more confident. I think that’s probably the best part of this: you get the confidence in yourself that you can do things,” she said.